I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
There are those who report on near death experiences, or death-like experiences: sudden oblivion, a flash of life, a distant glow. For all practical purposes, however, one is simply unable to report back from the dead. Beyond fertilization of the soil, whatever sense there is to be made of death is made from memory, regret, contributions, and the impact of a life on those who have been touched by it. Even the phantom visitations of literature—Dickens’s Marley or Dante’s shades, for example—squander their time among the living, reflecting on life well- or ill-spent rather than the soporific high of a last gasp or the ignobility of decomposition: “I wear the chain I forged in life,” explains Marley, “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” All this, of course, if you don’t believe in God.
English novelist Jim Crace does not believe—with a devotion that at times resembles evangelical atheism. It is an interesting position he makes for himself, considering that his highly acclaimed 1997 novel, Quarantine , was in large part about Christ’s 40-day sojourn in the desert. In Crace’s version, the apocryphal Jesus character dies of hunger, and his miracles are more the stuff of coincidence, hallucination and interpretation than of scripture. With his sixth novel, Being Dead , Crace continues in his role as the secular grand inquisitor of the big metaphysical questions. Being Dead opens with the random and violent murder of two zoologists. The story, or rather, the history, of Celice and Joseph unfolds, their complicated, endearing and triumphant lives, their 30-year marriage, their daughter, their work. “This is natural science… Prepare for death and violence”—the hapless motto with which Celice welcomes her university students. And indeed, as the characters come to life through the pages, their corpses rot, undiscovered and unmissed on the shore. Crace’s characteristic, almost painterly attention to the physical with his invented animals, language and epigrams brings this play of backward and forward to fruition, investing the untimely death of fictional characters with indelibility. The sort of novel that suggests the universe through a grain of sand, Being Dead draws an insular, almost post-lapsarian world, where everything is known and so meaning and significance must be created anew.
Minna ProctorI was impressed when you explained to me that you wrote your last two novels, Quarantine and Being Dead, in part, because of your frustration with your atheism. I think of atheism as a resolution rather than a position that would engender frustration.
Jim CraceIt’s not only Christians or Muslims or Jews who are vulnerable to the wonders of the universe and the fear of death—even though there is no God. Everybody has good cause to want a narrative of comfort that will make sense of this strange universe. That need for comfort exists just as much for people who don’t believe in God. In some ways the need is greater, because the easy, simple narrative of explanation is no longer there.
Atheists need something more complicated to comprehend the wonders and horrors of the world and the finality of death. Christian believers hide behind the false narrative of the Resurrection and Judgement Day, and living happily ever after in paradise. Theirs is a comforting, ready, thin narrative. For us nonbelievers, the same causes for wonder are there, but the hunt for explanations follows a rockier route.
MP Are the narratives of science that you propose more complex than the folktales and fairy tales of Christianity?
JC Of course. The Christian explanations for the scientific world are babyish, simplistic. That doesn’t mean I sneer at people who believe in them, because a lot of grand stories are very simplistic and straightforward, like the Icelandic sagas, Beowulfor all the Greek myths. Nevertheless, the simplemindedness of those narratives undermines the wonders of the universe. If you were to stand on the top of a hill—as you could have done in the 14th century—next to a religious practitioner and heard thunder and seen lightning, that religious practitioner might say, “That is God expressing his anger at the sins of the universe.” It would have been the best available narrative. Indeed, the best available narrative of the time would have been that the world was flat. And of course, if the world was created, how else could it have been created than by some magic act—there was no available science to provide a more complicated version. But ever since the 14th or 15th centuries, Christian beliefs have been undermined and eroded so that now they are virtually standing on nothing. We now know, since Darwin, that there is a progressive explanation for the creation of the natural world. Two years ago, even the Vatican accepted the scientific authority of evolutionary theory.
Of course, now we have the big bang theory, and science has reduced the provenance of the universe to a ball-bearing sized mass of density and weight. Day by day science is explaining more and religious belief is conceding more ground. Religion has not succeeded in defending itself against scientific explanations. The churches have always got it wrong about the natural world. That’s interesting. You would have thought that by now religion would have been flattened by the weight of science and disappeared. Of course the reason it hasn’t disappeared is that humankind has a need for something other than science. Humankind has a need for narrative, it has a need for stories which, in fact, don’t have to be true to be powerful. That’s where myself and religious beliefs rub shoulders, because we both embrace the power of narrative.
MP Is the sum notion of evolution somehow a more complicated narrative than the idea of the Holy Ghost?
JC The Holy Ghost is quite a good story but it’s nothing compared to—why do you think of the Holy Ghost?
MP It’s one of the more provocative, more expansive ideas; it’s open to ambiguity.
JC There is no Holy Ghost, there is no God, there is no Son of God, and there are no ghosts. There is nothing of the universe which is not contained entirely within it, which does not—or will not—have a thorough scientific explanation. But when you start to find scientific explanations, you don’t find the magic decreasing. The narratives of evolution, for example, describe the slow, devastating, irresistible, complicated unfolding of the universe over millennia.
It’s such a wonderful narrative that when you compare it to the story of the world being created in six days with a seventh day of rest, there’s no competition. So, to argue the non-existence of God is not a reductive version in which the imaginative complexity of the world is shrunk. Actually, what you are doing is presenting a version of the world in which the causes of wonder and the causes of fear and awe increase a millionfold, because the scientific explanations for the world are so complicated and so awe inspiring.
MP You say there are no ghosts, but the first paragraph in Being Dead speaks to the ghost that Joseph and Celice need to lay to rest.
JC There are ghosts in fiction. To use ghosts in fiction and as a metaphor in your daily life is not to believe in ghosts, it’s to believe in stories. The danger comes when you start ordering the world as if ghosts really do exist. Writers and storytellers can use ghosts, because ghosts are metaphors. The same with Gods. Managing the world as if Gods truly exist, that’s when you have problems, that’s why religion has proved such a damaging presence in the world. I’m a second-generation atheist, my father was an atheist also—three generations of nonbelievers, at least. The atheism of my father’s generation was class based. To not believe in God in England in the 1930s was, in a way, to not believe in the ruling class. So much in England was controlled by the ruling class—the banks, the churches, royalty, education, the BBC—therefore, to say you didn’t believe in God was to say you didn’t believe in yet another province of the ruling class.
MP So it was a political decision.
JC It was, and therefore my father’s atheism was an old-fashioned, socialist atheism. He didn’t need any alternative belief in the ’20s and ’30s because his atheism was really a statement on socialism. It was an observation on the shortcomings of the political life he was forced to live: I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in Jesus Christ, I don’t believe in bankers, I don’t believe in armies, I don’t believe in the class system, I don’t believe in the BBC accent. Of course, after the war, class politics were somewhat diluted, and then my father’s atheism seemed bleak and inadequate to me. I loved my father—he was a funny old Mick, endlessly tolerant of human beings whatever their color and sexual preference but immensely intolerant of any politics that didn’t match his own. He died in 1979 and made it quite clear that he should have an atheist funeral; in other words, there should be no funeral. Nobody should be told he died, there shouldn’t be any flowers, any guests, certainly nothing in a church, no music, no prayers, and there shouldn’t be any eulogies. He just wanted us to dispose of his body and not even keep the ashes. He didn’t want us to do what we would have wanted to do, which was to sprinkle his ashes over one of his allotment gardens. It would have been touching to have taken his ashes and returned him to the soil. Like complete fools, the fellow members of his atheist family, my brother, my mother and I, did what he asked. We took him to the crematorium, we told nobody, went away, nothing happened, nobody said anything. We didn’t pay any respect to his unique life. It was the biggest mistake we ever made, because what we failed to recognize was that though atheism was a rejection of the existence of God, atheism was not, and should not be a rejection of the existence of grand lives. The very opposite. His funeral should be even more a celebration of the self-containedness of life than you could find in a Christian ceremony.
It was a mistake that to this day, every day, I regret. That we saw my father off in that inadequate way is one thing that has emotionally undermined me since 1979, and I think that therefore, when I was writing on a religious theme in Quarantine and particularly in Being Dead—I don’t believe in ghosts—but the reverberance of my father’s life was constantly at my shoulder and I wanted to find an atheism that was much less bleak.
MP But his request strikes me as something that followed the politics of his life, whereas the way a family pays tribute after a death is something they do for themselves. So the bleakness comes from your own experience of not having paid tribute?
JC We swallowed his desires whole, and we should have … The point is, I was happy with this Stalinist North Korean-type atheism until I reached the first time in my life when I needed what religions would call an invisible means of support. I happily lived my atheism in my father’s style until he died. That’s why we made the mistake, we didn’t realize that our beliefs were inadequate. We didn’t realize that this wonderful experience of being alive was worthy of celebrating for non-Christians as well as Christians. When you think about it, the wonder of this world is not that we have been chosen by God and placed here fully formed: No, the first wonder of the world is that we have won the incredible lottery that we are here at all, me and you now, talking on the phone. Think about the millennia that have existed before and the endless millennia that will come, we could have been placed anywhere among those. Think of the many thousands of types of creatures that we could have been but we are not, we happen to be the ones that we are, lucky things. Think of the millions of sperm that could have made us somebody different but didn’t.
And yet, it is us, we are here, and it is now. And that really is the basis of the scientific wonder of the world. Here we are, with consciousness, able to appreciate the scientific unfolding of the universe. That is enough in itself to glorify, without having to come up with simpleminded narratives.
MP When you say simpleminded, I’m wondering if that’s a characterization you’ve arrived at through investigation, or is that how you have always thought about the Christian narratives?
JC I’ve always thought they were simpleminded. Some of the stories of the Christian religion are good; they aren’t wonderful. But if you consider the reason the Christian religion has survived at all, it’s because these stories have been the Trojan horses that have smuggled a belief in God, the trinity, the afterlife into our consciousnesses.
MP When you talk to Christian thinkers, are you interested in the way they interpret the stories, or is it something that from the get-go you can’t quite be interested in?
JC In what way?
MP If you’re sitting around at a cocktail party talking to a Christian theologist, for example—
JC What a wonderful notion!
MP Stranger things happen. Is your response one of dismissal, or curiosity about how someone else reconciles his life?
JC First of all, I recognize the arch components of narrative, that tales from the Bible have a lot of color in them. I don’t think that appreciating narrative, seeking explanation in narrative, is something that should be sneered at. Nor do I believe that it’s unscientific. Narrative isn’t there by mistake, it hasn’t just evolved in the last 20 or 30 years; it didn’t only spring up for writing novels.
MP It’s a response.
JC It is something that has been produced for evolutionary reasons, telling stories gives us an advantage. I don’t mean telling lies, but telling stories gives us an evolutionary advantage. One of the ways humankind is advantaged is that we come up with systems, like religious systems, which enable us to turn inwards and to fear the weather and the landscape and the hereafter and death a little bit less. Stories and religions have served an immensely useful purpose. It’s not just human beings. If you were to give speech to other animals, they would also be storytellers. An example, in which storytelling gives an advantage to other species: walking through the fields of Derbyshire, you hear a skylark calling. It’s nesting time; the bird flaps its wings, hovers and calls out over an area far away from its nest, telling you a false story about where the nest is in order to protect it. There are many examples throughout the natural world in which telling stories gives an advantage. And so of course when I meet believers at these nonexistent cocktail parties, I am very interested in the way that narrative works for these people. I offer them respect, I’m not an evangelical atheist, and of course, neither are these theologians frightened of me. Rather, we cluster ’round each other. The cocktails help. Because Christian and Jewish religions love doubt. When you find Jehovah’s Witnesses at your door on Sunday afternoon, don’t tell them you’re an atheist—you’ll never get rid of them; tell them you’re Catholic. Like any Christian believer, they want to engage with complete doubt, because that’s what gives definition to complete belief.
I suppose this is what I came to respect and admire while I was writing Quarantine. There is something gleefully willful about faith, which I can enjoy even though I can’t share it. But to go back to my first point—I would still say I have a very highly developed, highly brewed sense of wonder, sense of fear of those things that traditionally religious people are wondrous about and fear. My great concern, and perhaps the reason Being Dead was written, was that if the great religions of the world atrophy—which they seem to be doing to some extent—then we cannot afford to have a world in which there is no mechanism for fear and wonder and awe and transcendence, simply because atheism did not bother with that in the past. If scientific logic were to have its way and everybody stopped believing in God, then we would have to find some other form of mysticism to take the place of a belief in God. Because that kind of transcendence, that kind of mysticism is our Trojan horse for glorifying the fact of existence, for wondering at the diversity of the natural world. We would not want to be without those things.
MP Is yours a scientific mysticism, or does the mysticism and the transcendence come in somewhere else?
JC It’s as scientific as belief in God, which is scientific if you accept that there is a God gene—which has been identified.
MP I didn’t realize that.
JC Yes, some people have a biological predilection for believing in God and other people don’t. Interestingly, the God gene is very closely associated with that front part of the brain where epileptic fits are triggered; religious visions and epilepsy belong to the same part of the brain. If you were to take someone that had religious visions and treat them for epilepsy, they would no longer have religious visions. Isn’t that wonderful?
MP You’d make an atheist.
JC You’d make an atheist. But he’d still need a set of beliefs for the day. We have to come up with some other narrative of comfort that makes more sense than God. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water; we don’t have to say that the world isn’t wonderful and that it’s merely a great plunking machine produced by the dull processes of evolution without any cause for us enjoying it, without any cause for recognizing that consciousness gives us a take on the world which is worth not wasting because even though you might say that everything about us is sort of genetically preordained and that everything about the world is scientifically mapped out—and you could argue that—what you cannot argue is that there isn’t personal experience. We all have personal history, and we all have a private life, and a biographical route which does change and can go off in unordained directions. We are able to respond because we have this gift of individual consciousness that other animals don’t have. Our experience is deeply felt, and is not worth mocking for scientific reasons. We can feel fear, joy; life is three score years and ten, let’s make whoopee.
MP You play with the idea of consciousness in Being Dead. While reading it, one has the sense of reading about the experience of death, of decomposing, but that’s a false impression. The narrative walks a thin line, there are very detailed, physical descriptions of decomposition from an omniscient narrator that is somehow very close to the sensibility of the corpses. You create the impression of having the experience of death.
JC You can’t have the experience of death. In fact, my whole point is that you can’t experience death because there is nothing to experience after death. My book is just another false narrative. If you think about it, the whole premise of the book is that love provides a period of grace after death, yet the point I’m making in the book is that there are no periods of grace. Death is death, and so my book is just more false comfort. It’s playing the same game that religious narratives play, but it’s trying to play largely within the rules of a self-contained world that begins at birth and ends at death.
MP Can you elaborate on how love provides grace after death? What exactly do you mean by that?
JC This book was suggested to me by a true crime program on British television. My daughter, who should have been in bed, persuaded me to watch it one evening. There was the case of a middle-aged couple—not the couple in my book—who had been walking along the coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales and were shot, and their bodies weren’t found for five or six days. When I first heard this story, I thought, Well, we can presume something about this couple—and it might not have been true but I presumed it—they had to have still been fond of each other. Married at least 30 years, because that was the age of their children, with enough fondness for each other to be walking the length of that coast together. There is something very intimate and simple and good-hearted about taking a country walk with someone. We also know that after 30 years, the passions of teenage love aren’t there, all the accommodations and compromises they would have had to make, all the irritations that must exist between them—for anybody married that long—would have accompanied them on that walk. Yet here they were with this enduring fondness—you might not call it passion, or love, but an enduring fondness—and they were killed. I imagined, though it didn’t turn out to be true, that as they were lying in this beautiful landscape, their bodies were touching. It was as if somehow, even though they were dead, this fondness was allowed to survive for the days in which their bodies laid unfound. So the idea behind Being Dead was that there is no eternity, there is no ever after, but we do make a contribution to the world, and if we are lucky that contribution is love. That’s why I’m still talking about my father’s death 20 years ago with, I hope, a tone of love. This may be a very romantic and sentimental view of the universe, but it is as much as we can hope for. There will be no eternity of consciousness, but there will be a kind of short-lived added period of grace to our lives, which is people remembering us and still loving us. That is what I was arguing in the book.
MP What you’ve characterized as a good-hearted walk along the beach you’ve infused in the book with all the complications of a 30-year relationship. The walk is not a symbol; it’s complicated and filled with irritations, regret and resignation.
JC I wanted to make the love hard. You can’t triumph unless the route is hard. To say, “Be comforted by my narrative of death because there is ever after and there is God and there are angels at hand” is not much of a triumph because it doesn’t face much challenge, or many hard concepts. But if you say, as the book does, “This is exactly what happens when you die, we’re road kill, we’re eaten, it is ugly, it is nasty”—yet out of that story, there is still the reassurance that every road kill redelivers into the natural world. That seems to be facing the hard realities of death and yet still finding some comfort and achievement. Where the characters are concerned I follow a similar route. Hollywood tries to tell us good looks and virtue are the same thing. The facts of the matter are that the people we do love are not characters played by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, they are blemished people. They are people who are hard to love, but we do. For me, that is the great optimism of the world.
MP You talked about your father’s politics, and I’m curious about the way your own politics are played out in your novels. For example, Musa, the ruthless cloth merchant in Quarantine who cheats the pilgrims out of food, work and money, seems to have a language and value system that could be read as a critique of a modern marketing world.
JC He’s a capitalist par excellence, he’s always looking for the main chance, always looking to exploit everything. He’s the church, as well. The commercial basis of Christianity is well documented—carbon dated, even.
MP It is social critique?
JC There’s no question about it. The one thing my books have in common is a deep antipathy to trade and capitalism.
MP How does that manifest itself in Being Dead, or does it?
JC It probably doesn’t. My earlier books tended to be about changing communities. If you look at any changing community, trade and commerce always play a part. Quarantine, and even more so, Being Dead, are much more personal books. They are much more about the big philosophical questions. I always used to think my books were going well when they abandoned me and became their own thing, expressed views of their own. If I had written Quarantine as a political tract, as an atheist, it would have been a very different book. And even though I speak the way I do about God, Quarantine doesn’t speak like that. The book is a much less atheistic person—being, whatever it is—than I am. It’s much more ambiguous about God than I am.
MP So it’s a profoundly fictional book.
JC Profoundly. You go into fiction in order to find ambiguity, not to leave it behind. Lack of ambiguity is what you find in nonfiction; the lifeblood of fiction is ambiguity. Having said that, there never came a point while I was writing Being Dead, where the book abandoned me. Being Dead was a monstrous companion; it didn’t want to write itself or express its own ambiguities. What I am saying, in other words, is that it is my most personal book. There’s a lot of me in that book. My own emotions never got sidelined in Being Dead; they were always to the fore, even though I was hiding them behind characters that aren’t me and aren’t my wife and aren’t my children, and inventing landscapes and inventing animals. Even though I was trying to hide the rawness of my own emotions and of my own sentiments—which I know were actually the driving force of that book. It was a hard, hard, unhappy book to write.
MP Because it didn’t conform to your idea of a book going well?
JC Not only didn’t it conform to my idea of a book going well—where you go down and switch on the word processor and the novel spreads itself freely across the page—it was a struggle all the time. Not only did it not abandon me and write itself, but I had to keep companionship with something hard, the business of death, my own involvement with death, and the inevitability of death—not only mine. The implications of the book are that we die and that’s it. I wanted to create a false narrative which would provide some comfort in the presence of death in the same way that the Christian religion provides comfort, but I wanted my comfort to be a godless comfort—did I succeed? The truth is I don’t think I did. The book provides a bit of philosophical comfort for people who don’t believe in God, who want to believe in the transcendence of the natural world.
But I don’t think that if I were actually to go along to the doctor and learn I only had three months, that in those hard circumstances, in the presence of those heavy footfalls on the stairs outside my room, I don’t think my narrative would provide me any comfort—though other people, in that very situation have told me they got comfort from it. Nor do I feel it would provide any comfort if, God forbid—if I can use such a word—something awful were to happen to one of my children, or my wife, or my mother. I don’t think this atheistic false narrative would provide much comfort, either. But then, maybe my cynicism is so deeply entrenched that I wouldn’t find comfort in anything.
MP Maybe yours is a monastic aesthetic, like using stones for pillows. You decide not to accept comfort.
JC Except I will find comfort in daily life. If you go for a walk down the coast with me, you won’t find somebody who responds starkly to the natural world: my responses to the world are deeply mystical.
MP Well, Being Dead is a kind of elegy. The existence of the book, even as fiction, belies the idea that there is nothing after death, because there is a story. You’ve written an elegy to fictional people—to a life, a love, a family, and also you’ve produced a work of literature which is an indelible mark of your own existence in the world.
JC But the game you are playing, actually, is a bluff I want to call. Atheists like me do not say that nothing survives after death. Everything survives after death. The universe is made up of a finite number of cells, and all of ours will continue to exist somewhere for thousands of years. When our blood goes into the soil, we all go into the soil, we continue to exist, but we don’t exist in a conscious form and we do leave things behind.
It’s nice to leave a book behind, we leave children behind, and we leave a well-tended garden—of course we make our mark. But we shouldn’t take from that a personal message of hope. There is hope for the universe. There is a future for the universe, the universe is awash with futures. But the hope and the future are not for us.
MP Hope is a human state and the universe is not human so it can’t actually feel hope.
JC There is no hope for us, because hope ends with death. This is why the book runs backwards. If there is no future hope, if there is no eternity, the end is at the end and that is it, the fat lady has sung, let’s all go home. Where do we take our comfort then? We can only take it in retrospect, the days that have been lived. On our sickbed at the moment the last cell dies and the great scream of panic comes flooding in, then our lives exist only in retrospect. Which is why—unlike most books, in which you talk about a narrative unfolding, starting with people at their least exposed and most protected—this book opens with death, where people are most vulnerable and most exposed and most cathartic. The book enfolds, so that by the end the characters are taken from their most exposed to their most protected, until they are sleeping comfortably in separate beds on the morning of their death without any sense of eternity or violence troubling them in the least. That, I suppose, is the kind of sentimental comfort I took from this book. There is always the past to bask in.
MP I buy that.
JC You go for that?
MP Yeah, I think it’s beautiful.
JC I am addressing myself to this subject now because the future centuries and the next 50 years and our children and the people you see on the street have got to come up with a new mysticism. But the new mysticism that is atheism cannot be the old atheism, it has to be a new version which takes as much pleasure in the natural world and has as much fear of death as the old religions do and did. Amen. There is no God.
Minna Proctor is a writer and an editor at BOMB Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Nation, the New York Observer, nerve, Conjunctions, and BOMB. Her translation-in-progress of the short stories of Federigo Tozzi won a PEN American Center award for Italian translation, and will be published by New Directions next year.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee